Driving down the long stretch of barren road that leads to the airfield, I look around taking in what little scenery there is to be found. As we draw closer I stare out the window of the car and glance overheard only to see, against the backdrop of the cloudy and overcast sky, the silhouette of a small single prop Cessna slow to a crawl as a series of tiny black dots break off from the plane and begin their nearly five-minute descent to the ground. On any other day this might be cause for alarm, but not today, because today I was headed for The School of Human Flight to, as the name might suggest, throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane.
As my roommate Paolo and I walk into the small hangar that serves as a base of operations, our excitement is nearly palpable and is only further fueled by the outwardly enthusiastic employees, all seasoned jumpers themselves. We introduce ourselves and confirm that we’re there for the 12 o’clock jump. We had arrived about half an hour or so early so while we wait, we casually chat with the crew about what to expect.
Greg Sheppard, our 24-year old guide and skydiving instructor of six years told us his first just was “one of the most nerve racking experiences ever” and recalled that “the whole time I was scared out of my mind.” Despite this foreboding account, he is quick to clarify that it is not at all a bad time.
“It’s like riding on a roller coaster for the first time…” he explains to us, “… you’re really scared, [but] then once you actually go through with it, you’re like ‘Man let’s get back on again! I’m ready to go!’”
As we wait, another first-time jumper arrives and introduces himself as Dan Howell, an enlisted airman who had just moved to Florida from California. Upon his arrival we are ushered into a small room and given a few legal documents and waivers to sign and asked to watch a short video about the inception of tandem diving some thirty years ago.
We continue to chat and before long it’s time to suit up. I’m given a jumpsuit while Paolo opts for his jeans and a thick sweater. We’re then given the run down; Paolo will be harnessed to Sheppard, and I will be harnessed to another instructor, John Phillips, a middle-aged retired Marine and veteran jumper.
As soon I pull on the jumpsuit, Phillips assists me with stepping into the harness, which resembles a backpack with a set of extra straps that wrap around the waist and thighs. Phillips then explains to me that when we jump I need to look up keeping my head back and bend my knees so my feet kick his butt and keep my hands crossed across my chest as we exit the plane until he taps my shoulder to let me know it’s okay to put my arms out.
Once I’m secured in the harness and I understand the process, Phillips hands me a pair of goggles and we head towards the tiniest plane I have ever seen. It was almost surreal. I remember glancing up and noticing the pilot climbing into the cockpit. No big deal except that he’s wearing a parachute of his own.
As I stare into the cramped (and, perhaps more frighteningly, seatless) cabin I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into. As Phillips climbs in and crawls to the back of the cabin which now offers even less room, I momentarily forget where I am and what I’m doing as the deafening roar of the engine fills my ears and I find myself lost in my thoughts.
My trance is suddenly shattered as Phillips yells to me that it’s my turn to board. I step up into the plane, ducking under the hatch, as he instructs me to sit on the floor facing the rear of the plane with my back resting on the pilot seat and my legs hugged to my chest while he sits directly in front of me facing me in a similar position. Paolo and Sheppard follow suit, taking the same sitting position next to us. Despite our cramped stature, we still barely fit into a space that must have been no larger than the inside of a VW bug.
“Here we go!” I hear Sheppard yell over the engine as the plane begins to inch forward towards the runway. Soon enough we are in the air, circling the airstrip, cutting through the sky in an upwards spiral to gain altitude.
At what felt like moments into the approximately 20 minute flights I hear over the engine, “We’re just past the halfway mark.” As we hit 4500 feet and continue to climb, buildings, cars, and trees slowly become tiny, meaningless shapes on the ground. I glance away from the window and over at Paolo who is looking at me with a goofy grin.
“Ian…” he says looking at me in comical disbelief, “…we’re about to jump out of plane!” I can’t believe it either, and with my excitement, a nerve racking ascent to 9000 feet instead became an excited waiting game, an ecstatic count down until I could exit the plane.
Suddenly I remember that this is a tandem dive and I am not harnessed to my instructor, and neither is Paolo. As soon as I process this thought, I feel the plane slow and our instructors simultaneously shift from a seated position to their knees and instruct Paolo and I to do the same facing the front of the plane. As I barely manage to turn myself around and pull myself up onto my knees, I feel Phillips press himself tight against me and clip his harness onto mine.
“Okay we’re going to open the hatch now, get ready!” Sheppard tells us as he opens the door of the plane, the overwhelming sound of the air rushing by quickly filling the cabin. Paolo and Sheppard are out first and before I can even make a sarcastic remark to them, out they go. Phillips and I inch towards the door and he tells me to put my foot out onto the support beam. I look down. It’s nine thousand feet to the ground. But suddenly I’m calm. I’m unafraid.
“Three… Two… One!” and we’re falling. For a moment I’m disoriented as we backflip out of the plane, but as we stabilize I realize I’m staring at the ground as I hurtle towards it at 120 miles an hour. I can’t think about anything else, I am completely and solely focused on the air rushing past me, how amazing it feels to be flying through the air, and how unattached from and unburdened by anything in the world I feel.
“It was truly a liberating experience falling to the earth unbound and unattached,” Paolo said to me later about the jump, “It was like nothing else.”
The free fall only lasts about 45 seconds before I am unexpectedly jerked upwards and my feet shoot out in front of me as Phillips pulls our chute and we slow down from terminal velocity to a drastically slower 17 miles an hour. As we begin our gradual five-minute ride to the ground, Phillips hands me the reigns to the canopy and allows me to guide our circling descent for a few moments.
“Make sure to keep your feet up,” Phillips tells me, “Let mine hit the ground first or else you’ll stop and I’ll keep going and I don’t think either of us want that.”
We continue to descend growing closer and closer to the ground and as we touch down I put my feet up and slide in on my rear end for a fairly soft landing. It was over. I had jumped out of a plane nine thousand feet in the air and survived.
“Immediately once I did it I knew this was my home,” explains fellow instructor Jeremy Howell back on the ground, “I don’t know why I waited so long, it was a fear thing, but once I kinda got over that I knew this was the sport for me.” He went on to add, “It’s more of lifestyle really once you start getting into it, you get kinda consumed by the intricacies and the more you study it the more it makes sense and you start having these ‘Aha!’ moments. It’s such a well-regulated sport and there’s so many rules and so many avenues you can take and so many disciplines you can follow, the sport just becomes a part of your life.”
“It was a rush man, it was just sheer adrenaline, you know, the adrenaline’s still coursin’ right now.” says Dan Howell about his first jump, “There was like half a second where I was like Shit’s happening right now, and then I was just like Fuck yes. It’s definitely a life experience you gotta have, you just gotta do it man, especially if you like adrenaline. I’m a new man. The sky is my mother and I her bastard child.”